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Ravens are regular winter companions

A common raven. Note the thick bill. (Photo by Mark Sparky Stensaas)1 / 3
Tracks of a raven in search of a winter meal. (Photo by Larry Weber)2 / 3
A closer look at raven tracks. Note the long toes. (Photo by Larry Weber)3 / 3

The winter month of February continues. Even though it is our shortest month, to some winter-weary Northlanders it may seem like the longest. But much more is happening during these 28 days than just a succession of bland cold times.

Yes, February can be cold and we expect and get days, sometimes many, that reach into the subzero range. February can also be mild days that get into the 40s or 50s every so often. Snowfall will happen, but a February snowstorm of a substantial amount is not likely. We do not often get school closings due to snow during this month.

February is our driest month. With not much snow, dry conditions and cold temperatures and frequent cloudy days, it is easy to see why some note this as a drab month. But there is another natural phenomenon at this time that I find very interesting and filled with changes: the days keep getting longer.

Being more than a month after the winter solstice, the shortest daylight of the year, the days slowly kept getting longer with earlier sunrises and later sunsets throughout January. But once we reach February, the pace picks up. We began the month with a sunrise at about 7:30 a.m. and a sunset nearing 5:15 p.m. Soon it progressed to 10 hours of daylight on Feb. 8. By the time we exit the month, it will be 11 hours. Both the daylight savings time and vernal equinox will arrive in March.

For those of us who feed birds, we note their earlier morning arrivals. The birds are hungry and quick to rise. I am greeted by flocks of finches each day now as the light glows in the east. Chickadees, nuthatches, blue jays and woodpeckers follow the finches and are present for breakfast, too.

But it is in the early morning walks where I really see the changes in the daylight. As a regular early morning walker, I'm out here all winter starting in the predawn darkness. This means I usually share my treks with starry skies and chilly temperatures. Silence prevails on the subzero days. As the minus numbers on the thermometer tell me what to expect, I prepare and walk accordingly. Often the only sound I hear is the crunching of snow beneath each foot step as the granulated crystals crumble with my weight. Sometimes I'll also hear rifle-like cracking sounds in the woods in the cold. Freezing sap expands in the trees and cracks loudly in the silent woods.

But as we get into February, I often hear other sounds. Coyotes and occasionally wolves will call in the darkness. They speak of their mating season and their responses to the longer days, as do the calls of the permanent resident owls. These nocturnal predators have wintered here and now they give territory sounds in pre-mating behavior.

The walks were entirely in darkness a couple of weeks ago but now, as I return to the house at the end, it is in the gathering light of a new winter day. It is at this time that I seen the action at the feeders, but also other happenings. Tracks of rabbits, hare, deer and mice tell of their night travels. And there are the ravens.

Throughout the winter, as regular as the dawning light, was the appearance of the ravens. They appear to roost in an evergreen woods to the south of where I am. Each day, regardless of the temperatures, they arrive and fly over, usually as a small flock. These groups, I think, are family units and they find safety with each other. Occasionally, I see pairs winging by. They are not silent and mostly it is the hoarse croaking calls that alert me to their presence. Listening more, I also hear a number of other sounds from these dark birds.

Great companions during the very cold days, I can always count on seeing or hearing the morning flights of the ravens. All black and about 2 feet long, they are larger than their gregarious cousins, the crows, also becoming quite common and vocal as we go into late winter. Ravens also have a thicker bill and a wedge-shaped tail.

Common in the Northland, ravens are not present throughout the country as crows are. They live in varied habitats and are adaptable survivors; they seem to be able to live on anything. Ravens also know of road kills or other foods that are present all winter. During my walks, it is not unusual for me to see their roadside tracks as well, telling of foraging on whatever they can find at this time and place.

As permanent residents, they do not need to migrate further to nest. And despite the chill of early spring, they will be nesting, probably starting next month. Some of the pairing behavior that I now see in morning flights is preparation for this. But whatever the reason for them being present, I'm glad to have their company on morning walks throughout the winter.

Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.

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